Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park | TOURING THE BATTLEFIELD

Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas

Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas

The battlefield at Palo Alto can only be seen on foot via the Battlefield Trail, a level, paved path suitable for even those in wheelchairs. The main trail is a half mile long (one way) and has a short loop at the end. Two side trails branch off and lead to the actual battle lines of the American and Mexican troops. You can start the walk at the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park’s Visitor Center or from a parking lot located near the halfway point on the main trail. Starting at the parking lot saves you about a half mile of walking, but the coastal prairie terrain of the battlefield is absolutely beautiful, so unless you simply have trouble getting around, you are doing yourself a disservice by skipping the section between the Visitor Center and the parking lot.

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park map (click to enlarge)

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park map (click to enlarge)

Battlefield Trail at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Battlefield Trail at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

There is absolutely no shade anywhere on the Palo Alto Battlefield Trail other than inside the overlook shelter at the far end. Thus, wear a hat and apply sunscreen if avoiding the sun is important to you. Furthermore, Brownsville is nearly as far south as Miami, Florida, so needless to say, it’s damn hot in the summer and pretty damn hot in the spring and fall as well. I visited in late October and the temperature was in the low 90s (F). While the best time to visit is during the winter, a park Ranger told me that summertime is also very popular because many of those who come to the nearby beaches make a side trip to Palo Alto during their stay.

Wide open terrain of the coastal prairie at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Wide open terrain of the coastal prairie at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

I was warned by the Ranger to watch out for rattlesnakes. Yes, you heard that right. Rattlesnakes like to sit on the pavement and take in the sun. I didn’t see any during my visit, but just be sure to watch the pavement in front of you as you walk. If you see a rattlesnake, just pick it up and move it off to the side. The snake won’t mind. Be sure to flip it a potato chip or other snack for the inconvenience.

Also be on the lookout for fire ants. While there aren’t any ant hills on the paved trail, fire ants may be scurrying back and forth across the pavement. Before stopping to read an information panel or take a photo, make sure you aren’t standing on one of these ant paths because they’ll crawl on your feet and legs and bite the hell out of you for no reason.

The Battlefield Trail starts at the back of the Visitor Center near the picnic area. Before heading out, you can read about the cannon used during the battle and get some basic information about the trail itself on two information panels at the trailhead. Also be sure to pick up the free Palo Alto Battlefield Guide inside the Visitor Center.

Artillery exhibit near the start of the Battlefield Trail at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Artillery exhibit near the start of the Battlefield Trail at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

The fighting at Palo Alto took place about a half mile from the Visitor Center, so the initial part of the Battlefield Trail is just taking you out to where the action was. Thus, with nothing of the battle to speak of, wayside exhibits along this section focus on the natural aspects of the surrounding coastal prairie, which I have already mentioned is very beautiful.

The grass on the prairie is known as cord grass, and this stuff is as sharp as needles. I saw a video where a guy took a piece and shoved it through his shirt as easily as a sewing needle would pass through the material. So imagine having to fight a battle while running through cord grass, not to mention cactuses and rattlesnakes and fire ants and extreme heat. Many Mexican troops were fighting in sandals or were even barefoot.

Coastal prairie terrain of the Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas

Coastal prairie terrain of the Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas

The Battlefield Trail runs in a southwest to northeast direction. As you walk from the Visitor Center, you are heading in the direction that Mexican troops would have traveled when coming up from Matamoros, Mexico, to confront the American troops coming in the opposite direction in an attempt to relieve soldiers under siege by the Mexican army at Fort Texas on the disputed Texas-Mexico border. The Texas that had become a separate republic in 1836 after a revolution with the Mexican government, and which subsequently became the 28th state of the United States of America in 1845, was only what is today eastern Texas. The rest of modern-day Texas was part of a territorial dispute between Mexico and the United States.

Texas in 1846

Texas in 1846

To gain support at home for a war with Mexico, President James Polk authorized the United States military to build Fort Texas in the disputed area, hoping the Mexicans would attack first. They did, laying siege to the fort starting on May 3, 1846. Upon hearing the shots in the distance, approximately 2,300 troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor, a future president of the United States, marched from Port Isabel on the Gulf of Mexico towards Fort Texas (renamed Fort Brown a few weeks later in honor of Major Jacob Brown, who died during the siege). Mexican General Mariano Arista took his roughly 3,500-man Army of the North up the Matamoros Road (road that connected Matamoros and Port Isabel) to the coastal prairie field known as Palo Alto to stop the Americans. What both armies thought would be an infantry battle with plenty of hand-to-hand combat became almost exclusively an artillery battle. Though both sides had ten cannon, and the U. S. was greatly outnumbered, the American artillery was superior and easier to maneuver, allowing the Americans to counter with artillery whenever the Mexicans attempted to flank them with their cavalry. General Arista later wrote that he estimated the Americans fired 3,000 artillery rounds to his 650.

The battle began around 2 PM on May 8, 1846, and when dusk fell five hours later, only nine Americans had been killed versus roughly 350 Mexicans killed, wounded, or missing. During the night the Mexicans did their best to collect and bury their dead, though many were eventually left behind. Before dawn they retreated six miles south to Resaca de la Palma where the two armies fought again the next day with the same results. After that, the Mexicans retreated back over the Rio Grande to Matamoros.

It wasn’t until May 11th that the news of the fighting reached Washington. Polk now had his excuse: American blood had been spilled on American soil. However, many politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, saw a war with Mexico for what is was—an excuse for a land grab. It wasn’t a war for resources, colonization, or because America needed more room for its population. It was just a war for greed. Blood had been spilled, but it was highly debatable if it was on American soil. Regardless of any opposition, enough members of Congress supported the Polk administration, and the United States declared war on the 13th. What would become known as the Mexican-American War lasted until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848. In the end, Mexico lost half of its territory (the United States did pay $15 million) while America gained all of present-day Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, California, most of Arizona, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

The turnoff from the main trail to the auxiliary parking lot comes at .35 mile from the Visitor Center. Considering the short walk from the parking lot to the main trail, you save roughly a half mile of walking, round trip, by parking at the auxiliary lot. Again, unless you have trouble walking, the extra half mile of exercise is certainly worth the trip through the coastal prairie.

Battlefield Trail cuts through the coastal prairie at Palo Alto near Brownville, Texas

Battlefield Trail cuts through the coastal prairie at Palo Alto near Brownville, Texas

Fifty yards from the parking lot turnoff is the intersection with the trail that runs along the Mexican battle line. I personally caught this on the way back and proceeded on to the battlefield overlook, which is located between the American and Mexican battle lines. When you get to the next intersection just up ahead, this is the start of the loop. Stay to the right to go to the overlook shelter first. From the Visitor Center, the shelter is exactly a half mile. The shelter offers a great view of the battlefield while getting you out of the sun for a few minutes.

Palo Alto Battlefield Overlook, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Palo Alto Battlefield Overlook, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

View of the Palo Alto battlefield from the covered Battlefield Overlook

View of the Palo Alto battlefield from the covered Battlefield Overlook

Just 20 yards farther around the loop from the Battlefield Overlook is the turnoff for the trail that leads to the American battle line. The walk is .2 mile (.4 mile round trip). Along the way are information panels about the battle and the invasive species now living in the coastal prairie. The panels pertaining to the battle contain quotes from the U. S. soldiers who fought at Palo Alto, so along this trail you get a sense of the battle from the American point of view.

Start of the American Line Trail at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Start of the American Line Trail at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Information panel at the American Line on the Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas

Information panel at the American Line on the Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas

An example of an American 18-pounder cannon is on display at the end of the trail. The term 18-pounder refers to the weight of a ball that could be shot. This was the largest artillery piece at the Battle of Palo Alto (there were two). These cannon were too heavy to move off the Matamoros Road, so unlike the light artillery that were moved around to where they were most needed, the 18-pounders remained in one place for the duration of the battle. (Note: all cannon on the battlefield are replicas of mid-19th century artillery.)

American 18-pounder cannon aim towards the Mexican line on the Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas

American 18-pounder cannon aim towards the Mexican line on the Palo Alto Battlefield

Lighter artillery pieces have been placed in the grass to mark the general position of the U. S. light artillery at the start of the battle.

Examples of American light artillery at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Examples of American light artillery at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Mexican cannon, on the other hand, were older and of smaller caliber (mainly 6-pounders with a couple of 12-pounders). Furthermore, the Mexicans had inferior gun powder. As a result, their cannon did not have the range of the American cannon. In fact, shot from the Mexican artillery could not reach the Americans without first hitting the ground and skipping towards the lines. American soldiers wrote of having to dodge the cannonballs and that they got quite good at it. However, not everyone was quick enough to get out of the way, as nine Americans were killed during the battle.

When you get back to the loop portion of the trail, turn right to continue around in the counterclockwise direction. There is one more point of interest on the loop, an overlook of the site of a Mexican cavalry charge late in the battle—Torrejón’s Charge led by General Anastacio Torrejón. The cavalry was the most dangerous unit of the Mexican army, but the attack came through a marshy section of terrain, slowing the cavalry long enough for the American horse-drawn artillery to swing around and open fire on the incoming men and horses. The area is near a resaca: a dry channel of a former river, in this case the Rio Grande before it changed course. Rain water collects in it, and if it rains hard enough, the area floods. The soil is clay, so water does not seep easily into the ground. It is also very slippery when wet, making it hard for men and horses to maneuver.

Supposed site of Mexican General Anastacio Torrejón's cavalry charge late in the Battle of Palo Alto

Supposed site of Mexican General Anastacio Torrejón’s cavalry charge late in the Battle of Palo Alto

View of the Palo Alto Resaca at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

View of the Palo Alto Resaca at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

On the way back to the Visitor Center, don’t forget to take the side trail to the Mexican line. You can tell the two positions apart from the flags that fly. The American line has flags with red, white, and blue stripes, while the Mexican line is marked with green, white, and red stripped flags. The flags are lined up along the actual battle lines.

Typical Mexican artillery piece along the Mexican line at the Palo Alto battlefield

Typical Mexican artillery piece along the Mexican line at the Palo Alto battlefield

The Mexican Line Trail is also .2 mile long (.4 round trip). The information panels along the trail tell the story of the battle from the Mexican soldiers’ points of view. There are also some replicas of 8-pounder artillery on display that are typical of those used by the Mexican army.

Eight-pounder cannon on display along the Mexican Line at the Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas

Eight-pounder cannon on display along the Mexican Line at the Palo Alto Battlefield

The Mexican battle line stretched about a half mile, from this location (the army’s left flank) to the stand of trees you can see in the distance. General Arista expected the Americans to go on the offense with a charge, and when they did the cavalry on the left and right flanks of his much wider battle line would simply roll around the Americans and surround them. As mentioned earlier, the entire battle ended up being an artillery dual, so no close combat was ever attempted other than during a handful of unsuccessful Mexican cavalry attacks.

Mexican artillery aims towards the American line at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Mexican artillery aims towards the American line at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

When you get back to the main trail, take a left to return to the Visitor Center. Total distance of the hike, including the side trips to the Mexican and American lines, is 1.75 miles. The trip takes about an hour.

Battlefield Trail at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Battlefield Trail at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Back to the Top


With a few exceptions, use of any photograph on the National Park Planner website requires a paid Royalty Free Editorial Use License or Commercial Use License. See the Photo Usage page for details.
Last updated on June 24, 2022
Share this article